The Old Razzle Dazzle

The Democrats are tinkering with the calendar again, which is always a dangerous thing. The party’s rules committee plans to insert a Nevada caucus between Iowa’s caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, leaving this state third on the schedule of presidential events. The Old Man of the Mountain must be turning in his rock pile.

Several of the expected Democratic presidential contenders are threatening to come here anyway and afflict us with their respective visions for New Hampshire’s future. That could be a mistake. Coming to New Hampshire is vastly overrated as a means of getting to the White House.

Tradition dictates that a candidate must come to New Hampshire and meet the voters, one on one, in their homes and their workplaces, on street corners and in parking lots. He must press the flesh, wear out shoe leather, smile till his face hurts and generally make a nuisance of himself until he wins the hearts and minds of the New Hampshire voters. Then we will send him on his way to the White House in the hope that he will find there a more productive use of his time and energy than bedeviling the citizens of Main Street with his handshake and his smile.

No doubt that has worked for some candidates, like George McGovern and Bill Clinton, who each came here early and often and achieved impressive “victories” with second-place finishes. It worked even better for Jimmy Carter, who won the old-fashioned way by finishing first. But for most candidates coming to New Hampshire has been anything but a success story. And some have achieved spectacular success in our primary without setting foot in the state.

Mr. Republican, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, came here and campaigned in 1952, though with seeming reluctance. The candidate’s icy aloofness and stiff formality so impressed the state’s Republicans that they voted in great numbers for General Eisenhower, who remained above the political battle at his NATO headquarters in Paris.

Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller came here in ’64 and fought so fiercely for the New Hampshire vote that contrarian Granite Staters handed a write-in victory to Henry Cabot Lodge, a non-candidate non-campaigning in Saigon as the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. Gene McCarthy rallied anti-war and, more generally, anti-LBJ sentiment here in 1968, but despite McCarthy’s impressive showing, Lyndon Johnson actually won the popular vote as a write-in candidate without making an appearance here.

Early in 1972, a pair of GOP congressmen, Paul McCloskey of California and John Ashbrook of Ohio, came here to challenge President Richard Nixon, who stayed out of New Hampshire that winter and went to China instead. Nixon won the primary with more than 70 percent of the vote, no doubt leaving McCloskey and Ashbrook with a lingering suspicion they’d been campaigning on the wrong continent.

Funny things happen to candidates when they come to New Hampshire. Michigan Gov. George Romney had been campaigning here but a short time when he discovered he’d been “brainwashed” by the generals in Vietnam. (McCarthy, upon hearing the revelation, said he thought a “light rinse” would have sufficed.) Some candidates, once they get here, can’t seem to find their way out. Bob Dole was here so much during three presidential primary campaigns that he bore a strange resemblance to Dorothy in Oz: the poor man couldn’t find his way back to Kansas.

Still the notion persists that the road to the White House runs through New Hampshire, though a fortunate few have found it more advantageous to be in Paris or Saigon or even Beijing. Those still searching for Success in New Hampshire may soon discover it’s a small, mostly uninhabited town, a few miles northeast of Berlin.

Good luck. NH